Washington (CNN) – Election politics almost always creates unhappy drama for the Supreme Court's nine members, and a thorny appeal heard Monday from Texas officials over the state's controversial redistricting plan more than proved the point.
The court struggled mostly in vain to try and get its arms around a complex, time-sensitive dispute. At issue are competing maps for the Texas state legislature and Congress - created first by Republican lawmakers that favored their political base and later by a federal judicial panel to give minorities greater voting power.
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The court-drawn map was imposed after Democrats and minority groups in Texas challenged the original plan approved by the GOP-led state legislature.
The political stakes are huge: Texas gains four new congressional seats based on the newly completed census, and an expected high court ruling in coming weeks could help determine whether Democrats can wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans.
The legal stakes are just as important - creating standards courts must use when evaluating voting boundaries. This is the latest election-related dispute for the justices this year. Continuing, separate challenges to campaign spending laws and state voter identification laws will soon be presented to the court.
Several justices seemed to be grasping for compromise - to perhaps order the federal court in Texas to rework its map and give more deference to what the state legislative majority wants.
Justice Samuel Alito said redistricting by its very nature is subjective, with politics at its heart.
"They are policy choices and there are many factors that can be taken into account in drawing a map," he said. "Those are all questions of policy. And the question is who makes those policy decisions? Are they going to be the policy decisions that were made by the legislature, or are they going to be the policy decisions made by the district court? And to say they are going to apply neutral districting principles is a subterfuge. There is no such thing."
All sides –including the justices– openly expressed concern whether a final resolution from three federal courts now considering the Texas maps –including the Supreme Court– would come in time before the November elections.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had filed an emergency appeal in November, saying a map approved by a federal panel in San Antonio was "fatally flawed."
The new court-ordered maps would increase the number of districts dominated by minorities, especially Hispanic voters. Texas is among several mostly Southern states that are required under the landmark Voting Rights Act to have any changes to voting laws or rules approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
In a separate appeal two years ago, conservatives on the high court seemed to believe that key enforcement section of the law –known as Section 5– was unconstitutional. It was unclear whether the court now has the majority to strike down the provision, which would free Texas and other states from federal oversight.
Those seeking public office had begun filing their candidacies last month, prompting the state's time-sensitive appeal to the high court. Those candidacies are now on hold until the justices decide the larger issues.
"Elections should not proceed based on legally flawed maps that are likely to be overturned on further review," Abbott said in an earlier written statement.
The Supreme Court's decision to intervene puts the redrawn voting boundaries in political limbo, and will likely compress the time candidates can eventually file and run for office. The state's primary election is set for March, but could be rescheduled for as late as June.
During oral arguments, Jose Garza, an attorney arguing for a coalition of Latino groups, said a "terrible history of historical discrimination in Texas," gave courts discretion to craft voting maps that benefited certain minorities.
Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether that San Antonio-based district court went too far. He cited District 33, in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, which Roberts claimed was drawn as a "minority coalition opportunity district" to benefit two minority groups.
"We have never held that it is appropriate or even permissible to draw a district where you are putting in together two minorities, two different minority groups," he said. "Here you are have of the district court creating that in the absence of any state expression of a desire to create that type of [local voting] district."
Garza stood firm. "I believe that the plan that was drawn by the court is fair. Is it the optimum plan that the plaintiffs wanted? It is not."
Another sticking point is that a separate federal court in Washington is deciding whether to approve– or "preclear"– the original plan approved by the legislature, a requirement under the Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act. That leaves three federal courts involved in the dispute.
"So the only thing that exists is old maps until you get the preclearance," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "I don't see how we can give deference to an enacted new map [by the legislature], if Section 5 says don't give it effect until it's been precleared... doesn't that turn Section 5 on its head?"
Texas is getting four new congressional seats –more than any other state– after the latest census showed its population grew by 4 million people. The plan drafted by the Texas three-judge panel would give minorities the majority in three of those congressional districts, and could give Democrats more seats statewide. With 36 congressional seats, the fate of Texas could have national implications in the fight over control of the House.
"Ninety percent of the growth in this state in the last decade was minority growth," said Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic state representative. "Sixty-five percent of that alone, Latino. So you would expect these new congressional districts would reflect the minority populations that created the opportunity."
Fischer leads the Texas House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the key plaintiff in the lawsuit against the legislature's original map.
That coalition said the GOP-drawn map would mean zero net seats for minority voters in both congressional and legislative seats.
Under state rules, redistricting plans approved by the legislature can be challenged in court, with judges having the power to craft alternate maps.
Republicans in the state have a super-majority in the legislature, meaning they needed no Democratic support to pass their plan. A similar party split a decade ago led Democratic lawmakers to flee to neighboring Oklahoma in an effort to kill the 2000 redistricting bill.
Abbott said the federal court's plan was an unconstitutional intrusion into the legislative process.
"It seems apparent that the proposed map misapplies federal law and continues the court's trend of inappropriately venturing into political policymaking rather than simply applying the law," Abbott said. "Perhaps worst, in the name of protecting Hispanic voting power, the court seems to be discarding already elected Republican Hispanics in favor of drawing maps that may elect Democratic Hispanics."
The state's Republican governor, presidential candidate Rick Perry, supported the map passed by the legislature, but has not signed it into law while the plan is challenged in court.
All states are required to redo their voting boundaries following the recently completed nationwide census, conducted once every 10 years.
The court-approved plan in Texas will stay in effect until all the legal challenges are exhausted.
The high court appeals are Perry v. Perez (11-713, 11-715) and Perry v. Davis (11-714).
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